The Cathedral of St. Gallen

Like many European cities, St. Gallen has a beautiful cathedral, which is high Baroque but light (thanks to clear windows). Like most things Swiss, it is clean and well-organized. Built in the late 18th century, the cathedral is monumental. Like some archbishoprics elsewhere in this part of Europe, the archbishop of St. Gallen was not just in charge of things sacred, but also was the ruler of the principality.

St. Gallen also bridges the Protestant and Catholic traditions of this country, and for a time (after something called the Toggenburg War if 1712) the Canton became officially Protestant. In 1798, the Imperial Abbacy (yes, a real thing) was ended. Afterward, it seems that Catholics and Protestants seemed to live reasonably well together.

The cathedral has some cool stuff and some weird stuff, again like most European cathedrals. The weird stuff includes the bony relics of St. Gall himself, which are encased in a reliquary behind glass. (Maybe that’s a little cool, too, but mostly creepy.) Nearby, however, is something that falls into the “wicked cool” category: an early Irish monastic bell. These were hand bells (with neither the clanger nor with the 18th c. oil painting) used by monks to call others to worship. I have not seen these outside of Ireland, but this one is clearly very old.

The other weird, creepy thing that I experienced happened as I was sitting silently in a cathedral pew. I heard a “thwump-thwump” noise that kept repeating, so I turned around and saw a dark-skinned woman, 30-ish, walking on her knees up the stone center aisle of the church. I’m not trying to judge, but I just don’t think God wants us to do penance by wrecking cartilage.

I thought immediately of Mary Oliver’s poem that includes the lines, “You don’t have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” The other day, I was reading a book by Padraig O’Tuama, leader of the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland, and he writes that repentance is one of those “strong words” that often get thrown at people, and that it loses the meaning of the Greek word metanoia (which means to change one’s thinking… a change of heart might be the best translation). If you’re at Plymouth often, you’ve likely heard me say something similar many times.

Maybe God doesn’t really want penance…God knows that remorse and a change of heart are good for us and those around us. Does God demand painful retribution for our sins? Or would God rather have us work toward having a “clean heart,” as the psalmist writes?